GaiaMotherTree at Zurich Main Station
In June 2018, StoryLabs had the pleasure of hosting a week of sessions with the theme yarn and political activism for the kindergarteners at Rietberg Montessori Schule in Zurich. We explored stories where young female characters made things in yarn to improve the environment around them and talked about the founder of yarn bombing, Magda Sayeg. It was an eye-opening experience.
As we often do in StoryLabs, we mixed fictional stories with non-fictional stories, because we believe fiction and reality are complementary, not contrary forces. Fiction is a tool that helps us better see, understand and digest the world around us, thereby better preparing us to deal with the non-fictional world.
And sometimes, beyond all our careful planning, the outside world surprises us with unexpected bridges that further close the gap between the world of imagination and the sensory world at hand.
This summer, Basel’s Fondation Beyeler gave us one such gift from the hands of the Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto in the concourse of Zurich Main Station.
If you happen to be one of the many people that rush through this major railway hub to catch one of the 2,900 trains that depart from there everyday, you know it is not an obvious place for calm reflection. It’s a place of hustle and rushing and often full-on sprints. But if you walked through its concourse in July 2018, Ernesto Neto’s 20-meter high work GaiaMotherTree would have stopped you in your tracks. Neto is known for exploring the boundaries “of physical and social space through interactive, tactile, and biomorphic structures.” For his commission from Fondation Beyeler he created a massive, multi-colored, finger-crocheted tree hanging from the vast hall’s rafters. Under its canopy and within its trunk, was a large hollowed space where people could come together, sit, nap, breastfeed, sing or meditate. More than a sculpture, we would argue this piece was an invitation to partake in an experience: in the midst of one of the busiest train stations in the world, the artist urged us to slow down and communally engage. The sharp contrast between location and invitation was rather ingenious. “We can never really touch the present,” he said in a talk at Tate Modern in 2012, “because as soon as it is here, it is gone.” That is why, in his architectural sculptures, he tries to bring people into physical contact with the present moment as intimately as possible. Intimacy is a word he uses when talking about GaiaMotherTree as well.
GaiaMotherTree has very evident physical similarities with the images we worked with in the activism StoryLab, but it also shares important values with the StoryLabs project itself.
StoryLabs also believes that by slowing down and doing something simple but essential together, sharing stories, we build a stronger, more empathetic society. As Neto says in the trailer video to the artwork, “It is a big work but everything comes from one little knot after the other,” i.e. small, simple gestures. “We never know what can happen,” which is to say the unexpected is precisely what we are seeking.